It was the article
about the toenail clinic that started it. Until then Alexandra had turned fifty with barely a backward
honestly, John, there's not much difference between forty and fifty these
days," she said to her husband at breakfast, her mouth stuffed full of e
"No, only about three chins and several
rolls of fat," John sniggered from behind the roller coaster of his Daily Mail. "You know me,
honey. I tell it like it is."
Alex smeared extra butter on her croissant.
After twenty-five years with Honest John she'd grown a thick skin over her comforting layers of
"What you see is what you get with me," he'd told her on the
night of their engagement
party in the scout hut. "Straight up, no lies, no silly games, pull no
punches - right between the eyes."
Lovesick Alex had felt her
knees turn to jelly inside her thigh-length suede boots.
Her mother told her she'd got a real gem. As for Alex's philandering dad
- he wasn't
present for the festivities in the scout hut. He was off up the Golden Mile
with his latest floozy. Small
wonder that Alex valued honesty above all else.
John had said the thing he loved most about
Alexandra was her name. "All my mates have landed themselves with Carols and Janets," he'd
said, rubbing his little sausage hands
together. "Alexandra - now that's class."
Alex had batted her spidery stick-on lashes and contemplated a
truthful, classy future.
There's been plenty of hard-core truth in this marriage, reflected Alex, butter oozing down her chin. But
somewhere down the years the classiness has waned.
'ell," said John, who'd obviously just reached the Mail's healthy
living pages. "You're going to have to keep an eye on my prostate,
Alex stopped chewing
as a wave of nausea washed over her.
about this - they've opened a drop-in clinic where the old folks can get their
toenails cut for free. Anyone over fifty, it says."
Alex put down her croissant. Now, this was a truth she hadn't seen
coming: at fifty she might be deemed incapable of cutting her own toenails!
"Better get you booked in pretty sharpish. When was the last time
you caught sight of your feet then, Al?" John's doughnut head wobbled with mirth.
Alex took off her varifocals and rubbed her eyes. No spider lashes these
days - just a few stubby spikes had survived all that gluing.
John's ever-present mobile
wolf-whistled from behind the Golden Shred.
John's Estate Agency, always here to help. Oh hi, Isabella, howya diddling,
glamorous PA had a habit of muscling in at mealtimes.
Alex reached across the table
for the paper, to check her horoscope.
are in grave danger of falling into a torpor this week.'
Flippin' heck, thought Alex.
Not another one.
"Yep, that's cool, Izzy sweetheart, we'll throw some ideas around
over a bite to eat. Ciao,
babe." John threw back his head and slurped his espresso. "That
woman's so amazing. Nearly as old as you,
but looks a million dollars. I've told you, Al, it's the HRT. Bloody
Oh yes, he'd told her all
sprayed himself with a cloud of No Sweat and was gone.
stared bleakly at the paper.
terrible toenail truth had somehow pierced her defences. She could feel the beginnings of a torpor.
Alex's nice lady GP
was off with stress, so she was squeezed in with young Dr Darby with the acne.
"It's the menopause, Doctor," she said. "I'm beginning to
feel old. But I'm not at all
sure about HRT - it seems so unnatural."
Dr Darby swivelled carelessly
on his chair. “Oh, I'd definitely go for the HRT. Nature never designed women to live beyond child-bearing age. Certainly
not to fifty. You need all the help you can get."
Alex took a moment to digest this information. There was a particularly
prominent pustule throbbing
in a crevice by the doctor's left nostril. She tried not to stare.
"What about side effects? I don't like the idea of all those
chemicals in my bloodstream."
Dr Darby shrugged inside his
over-sized cord jacket. "I wouldn't worry. When it comes to cancer and heart attacks it's pretty well swings and
roundabouts. What does your husband
"Oh, he's all in favour
of HRT. But then he doesn't have to play on the swings and roundabouts, does he? He's more interested in his
Dr D nodded. "I'm not
surprised. Prostates need watching." He rubbed his nose energetically as
he scribbled the HRT prescription.
It was too much for
the contents of the pustule.
Alex picked up the
contaminated prescription with some care.
"You'll be a new
woman," said the doc, tapping the details into his laptop. "Stick it
on your bum and get on with your life."
profound gratitude for this excellent advice, Alex scurried off to the chemists.
A month after the
HRT patch entered her life Alex felt the need to visit her older sister, Hattie,
who ran a donkey rescue centre. She slammed out of her city centre insurance office early and swore her way
past convoys of Morrisons lorries and tractors, before screeching to a
mud-spattered halt outside her sister's cottage.
teeth, Hat, why's it always so flaming wet and miserable in the country?"
your cage then?" enquired Hattie, staggering to greet her with a bucket of
organic donkey feed in each weather-roughened hand. "You don't seem quite yourself."
Alex threw her arms round her
well-padded sister and snivelled.
Hat - it's the HRT. My hormones have gone to pot."
clattered down her buckets. "Now that's really dumb, Ali. You should take
the natural approach like me - you don't want to be dabbling with all that HRT rubbish."
"I know -1 just want to stay young for a bit longer. Have nice
skin and cut my own toenails; that sort of thing."
Hattie took her
firmly by the shoulders. "I'll bet it's old Honest John who's put you up to this, isn't it?"
her nose noisily and nodded. "In a way. His latest PA's a drop-dead
stunner called Isabella who's been on HRT for years and she's hardly aged at
right! Another of his bits on the side no doubt."
Alex pulled away. "John
doesn't have bits on the side. He's far too honest for that sort of thing. Not
Hattie snorted and ran grimy
fingers through her tangle of wiry hair. "He's just like Dad if you ask me - honest when it suits
There was an uncomfortable silence for a moment, then
Hattie picked up her buckets. "Do you want to have a word with Mum while
Alex nodded and
followed her sister towards the crumbling black and white cottage. She should
have known Hattie wouldn't understand. She'd devoted her life to donkeys rather
than men so it didn't matter what she looked like. John always said she'd let herself go. Big time.
Hattie waddled round the side of the cottage and pushed open the five-bar
gate to the
not dressed for this," muttered Alex, picking her way through the long grass
in her black office suit and strappy heels. "We should have scattered her
ashes somewhere that was free of donkey poo."
considering Mum spent ten years on a shelf in your garage, I'll bet she thinks this is heaven."
Alex smiled and had a stab at some sisterly small talk.
"Everything okay in Donkey
Land then, Hat?"
"Oh you know,
busy, busy. We're coming up to the nativity play season. Donkeys are all blooming with health though, what with
the organic diet and the homeopathy."
Alex glanced across to the next field where
a bunch of homeopathic donkeys kicked and jostled for position by the gate.
They look just as irritable as me, she thought.
The sisters stopped by an old
gnarled apple tree in the far corner of the orchard.
"Hello, Mum, how's tricks?" enquired Alex, lamely.
"Flippin' heck, Hat, this tree's looking a bit the worse for wear."
expect her ashes were riddled with toxins," said Hattie. "All those
years of smoking like a chimney, then the lung cancer and the chemo."
scratched her left buttock where the HRT patch was giving her hell. "Do
I'm riddled with toxins, Hat?"
put it this way, Ali - when you pop your clogs I'm not scattering you in my orchard."
might have been tempted to rip off her HRT patch and let herself go, if it
hadn't been for some
unexpectedly lavish compliments from her husband.
"Might be my imagination Al, but the old jowls look a bit less
wobbly these days," he'd
said when she was on her hands and knees cleaning the oven.
She was so taken aback she choked on some of the mucous membrane-destroying
fumes she was spraying rather too liberally.
"And your hair's not
quite as lank any more. What did I tell you about the old HRT? Magic or what?"
Alex, eyes streaming.
Even more surprisingly,
goddess-features Isabella seemed to crop up in the conversation less frequently and her mealtime phone calls became a
thing of the past. So on the whole Alex reckoned it was worth persisting
with the HRT. The mood swings were tricky though. Working in the death and
destruction department of the insurance company could be depressing at the best
of times and Alex blubbed over most of the
claims she had to process.
"The world's such a
dangerous place," she said to John at breakfast one morning.
you sure as hell ain't gonna get out alive, sweetheart," he said, deep in
the sports pages.
it's all about minimising risks," persisted Alex. "I keep wondering
about my HRT."
"Oh pur-lease!" John rolled his eyes
theatrically. "I suppose you want to give it up and look dog-rough like your psychopath
"Homeopath," corrected Alex
John lowered his paper. "Sometimes, sweetheart, you've gotta
use a sledgehammer to crack a nut. I don't
want to look across the breakfast table at some wrinkled old bat, do
Alex was grappling with a strong desire to crack a few nuts when the
John speaking. Always here to - oh hi, Isabella. What's the deal then?"
The usual oily tones had been
replaced by clipped impatience.
"Oh that's a shame. Well, can't be helped. Yeah, well, visiting
might be tricky. See ya, sweetheart -
was that about?"
shrugged and went back to the sports pages. "Oh, Isabella’s had one of
those horrible cancers for a
while. Didn't spoil her looks at all - until recently. Gotta go into the Royal,
apparently. On her last legs, I expect."
There was silence for a
moment. "You knew?"
nodded. "Yeah, no big deal."
why didn't you tell me?" Alex spoke very quietly. "You tell me
Honest John tapped his lips
with a podgy, nicotine-stained finger. "Yeah, but Izzy wanted it kept confidential, so what could I do?
She was such a head-turner. Big time."
Alex was finding breathing
"Did the HRT have
anything to do with the cancer?"
"Could be a link,"
said Honest John, lowering his eyes. "Who knows?"
Suddenly the annoying
irritation that had been focussed in the region of her left buttock broke loose. A tsunami of pain tore
through every synapse and engulfed every menopausal cell in her body,
until she thought she might explode.
had finally thrown off her torpor.
©2007 Eileen Gilmour
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